* Walter Kerr Theatre, NYC * Written by Noel Coward * Directed by Michael Langham * Starring Lauren Bacall and Rosemary Harris

You might think Broadway would celebrate the centenary of Sir Noel Coward’s birth with a star-studded revival of *Private Lives* or another of his greatest hits like *Hay Fever* or *Blithe Spirit*. Instead, the occasion is being marked with *Waiting in the Wings,* almost the last play Coward ever wrote: it premiered in London in 1960 and has never been seen in New York before now. Unlike Coward’s final work *Song at Twilight*, an unusually (for him) frank portrait of an aging gay writer blackmailed over some old love letters to a boyfriend, nothing about *Waiting in the Wings* is likely to alter anyone’s assessment of the playwright a jot. Nonetheless, it’s a minor discovery and a theatrical treat.

Set in a retirement home for former stars of the stage who’ve fallen on financial hard times, the play almost inevitably calls to mind *Stage Door*, George S. Kaufman and Edna Ferber’s classic play about a theatrical boarding house. Except that in the movie version of *Stage Door*, Katharine Hepburn represented starlets hurtling through the revolving door to get into show business, while the gals in *Waiting in the Wings* are moving in the opposite direction. (Director Michael Langham and script doctor Jeremy Sams have added a wordless prologue in which hearse drivers haul away a former resident, just in case it isn’t clear what these retired divas are waiting *for*.)

The plot pivots on the decades-long feud between May Davenport (Rosemary Harris), the grandest dame on the premises, and Lotta Bainbridge (Lauren Bacall), whose arrival in their midst gets the other residents all atwitter, ready to watch the fur fly. The catfight never quite happens, partly because Coward is doing Chekhov here rather than Clare Boothe Luce but also because whatever is takes to pull off the role of Lotta, Lauren Bacall doesn’t have it. Especially up against Harris, who exemplifies stage acting at its detailed and radiant best, Bacall looks more like someone shopping for a handbag at Bendel’s than a legendary thespian.

But the surprise delight of the evening is the fantastic ensemble of veteran character actresses -- none of them younger than 60 -- who hang out in the living room carrying on Coward-style. Especially wonderful are Patricia Connolly as overgrown ingenue Maudie Melrose, Rosemary Murphy as Cora Clarke, who loves nothing more than playing solitaire and dispensing barbed bon mots, and Helen Stenborg, who practically steals the show as dotty firebug Sarita Myrtle. This production also makes it clear that the residence is run by a fag and a dyke -- Simon Jones plays former chorus boy turned administrator Perry Lascoe and Dana Ivey’s Superintendent Sylvia Archibald, who strides about the house in pants demanding to be called Colonel, is the gruffest, most affectionate, non-homicidal bulldagger we’ve seen on Broadway, possibly ever.

Their absurdly formal manners and ludicrous stage names (Cora Clarke, Bonita Belgrave, Topsy Baskerville, etc.) are not played for camp here. But I know I left the theater hankering to see the downtown revival of *Waiting for the Wings* starring Charles Busch and an all-male cast.

The Advocate, February 29, 2000

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